Monday, April 30, 2012

Prosecutors: Look to Philly

There's a photo bouncing around Facebook of an adorable child hugging an equally adorable retriever. The caption reads: "There's a special place in hell for those who abuse children and animals."

If there is indeed a hell, and there's any justice in that fiery place, the saying must be correct. And surely those who aid and abet abusers would qualify for the same "special" kind of damnation as the abusers themselves.

A landmark trial is underway in Philadelphia. For the first time, a church official (one not accused of laying a hand or other body part on a child) is charged with child endangerment. Prosecutors in the City of Brotherly Love allege that Monsignor William Lynn knowingly allowed sex-abuser priests under his supervision to remain in roles where they could continue to torture children.

The defense team argues that Msgr. Lynn took action when made aware of abuse allegations. Letters were written, now (conveniently) dead Cardinals consulted. Bad priests were sent, in true fox-watching-hen-house fashion, to rehabilitation programs run by the Church to be "cured" of pedophiliac urges.

The one common sense action that any parent would demand, removal of the accused priest pending full investigation, was never even put on the table. So much for defense of the defenseless. Msgr. Lynn did what the Catholic hierarchy does with monotonous regularity: he let the interests of his fraternity of priests eclipse the interests of defenseless children.

I'm hopeful the prosecutors chose the closest thing they could find to a slam-dunk case as a test run. And I hope prosecutors and lawmakers around the country are paying attention.

Civil law suits have cropped up here and there, alleging that the hierarchy ignored abuse. Millions of dollars in settlements have changed hands. Dozens of priests have gone to jail, but those who helped them offend and re-offend have gotten a pass.

So far. If the prosecutors in Msgr. Lynn's case secure a conviction, perhaps other district attorneys will consider charging monsignors, bishops and cardinals who aided and abetted the molestation of minors. Consider: You can go to jail for child endangerment by turning a blind eye to a seventeen-year-old drinking a beer under your roof. Shouldn't you go to jail for looking the other way while your subordinate sodomizes a nine-year-old?

To date, none of the Church's supervisors or "deciders" have gone to prison. Nor have the top decision makers made sweeping management changes. The pope's reaction to allegations that Boston's own Cardinal Bernard Law knew his priests were raping little boys? His Holiness gave Cardinal Law a major promotion. He gets to live out his days, fat, happy and far from prosecution in the Vatican. I hope he enjoys his stay, because if the saying at the top of this piece is right, the Cardinal is due for a massive lifestyle downgrade in the afterlife.

As is the pope, whose inaction on child sex abuse within his ranks is breath-taking. God's Rottweiler is obviously too busy reprimanding nuns who support medical care for children with pre-existing medical conditions to worry about child rapists in his Church.

I have to believe there's a hot seat in that special hell for abusers with Benedict's name on it.

Too harsh?

Let's not mince words. These are men covering for other men who rape little kids.

Anyone out there really believe in second chances for child molesters?

I have to wonder, would prosecutors demonstrate greater zeal if the majority of the victims were girls? I suspect the reason many priests abuse boys is a simple matter of access: Father So-and-So is more likely to get solo time with a male ten-year-old than a female one.

Nor have any states passed laws specifically requiring members of the clergy to report suspected child abuse.

The Church has had years, decades even, to clean its own house. It has failed abysmally. Every once in a while, a Church official issues a pre-written statement, bemoaning pedophilia in the ranks. To the best of my knowledge, no member of the hierarchy has ever made himself available to answer tough questions about why the Church continues to move so glacially in response to the never-ending complaints of child abuse.

I applaud the DA's office in Philly for finally forcing the issue. I hope its counterparts follow suit, and I hope the newspapers cover each trial, day by day, so the faithful can see the mind-boggling extent of the conspiracy against their children.

Those who help abusers torture their victims may have a special place in hell waiting, but I'm not content to bank on it. Perhaps we should send the guilty Church officials to prison here on Earth, just to make sure.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Happy? Hunger Games!

I've got bags under my eyes this week, not just because of seasonal allergies, or the fact that the Grape has chosen school vacation week to reduce his total sleeping time by three hours per twenty-four. I've spent the past few nights sucked into The Hunger Games.

("Happy Hunger Games!" is what the government representative says as she sends randomly selected children to meet violent deaths for political reasons.)

I'm halfway through book two of Suzanne Collins' wildly popular trilogy. The language is simple, and makes for an easy, fast read. Collins blithely ignores the writer's creed to show, not tell. While college seminars about her work may spring up, I doubt The Hunger Games will take its place on the junior high and high school reading lists.

Which is a shame, because the books have inspired hundreds of thousands of kids to read. Happy Hunger Games indeed. Equally great news: in narrator and star Catniss Everdeen, Collins has created a female hero who appeals equally to girls and boys - no mean feat in a world where boys still veer towards male protagonists while girls often cast a wider net. If Collins can shatter the myth of "boy's novels" and "girl's novels" for the young adult set, my hat's off to her.

Because Collins' stories have captured so many young imaginations, I suggest they should have a place alongside the literary greats on school curricula. I'm not saying replace the classics; add The Hunger Games on top. I doubt most kids will groan at the assignment, especially if taught in a thoughtful way.

It would be idiotic to make children waste time writing a "this happened, then this happened, and it means XYZ" type of book report about these books. There's not much for nuance or literary flair. Collins, however, tackles enormous themes in her fast plot. For the junior high set, The Hunger Games provides a natural but accessible jumping off point for discussions of "bigger" dystopian works.

The books beg age old questions about how much liberty the public can or should trade for security, and it frames them in an utterly relatable, not-too-distant future setting. Reality TV where contestants are forced to kill each other? I doubt that premise poses an enormous stretch for a modern teenage brain.

The books pose uncomfortable but important questions about what happens when a society concentrates all the wealth and power in the hands of a tiny minority, which in turn keeps the majority down by keeping them hungry, broke, uneducated and terrified.

History classes could reference the books in conversations about apartheid, colonialism and empire. Make the past (and indeed much of the globe's present) seem more pressing by using the book everyone is reading for context.

At the high school level, the same questions could be tackled in greater depth. The Hunger Games series could be studied alongside classic dystopian works like 1984, The Handmaid's Tale and even The Wizard of Oz. (Anyone who doesn't immediately notice the Capitol's blatant homage to the Emerald City has obviously stayed up far too late flipping pages.)

The child on child violence, which takes place in a future North American dystopia, compels the reader to keep turning pages. I suspect Collins knew she had a Grand Slam Home Run: the books are crafted to ensure a coveted PG-13 rating. The violence, while brutal and bloody, takes place off-stage (i.e. out of Catniss' sight) as often as before her eyes. Not once does one government storm trooper, anguished parent or teenager fighting for his life utter an obscenity. There's no sex. At least not in book one, or halfway through book two. Neither impaling nor disemboweling children garners an R these days (though a glimpse of female breast does).

The books have their detractors, of course. Some parents wring their hands over the violence. I get that. My mom took one book away from me, ever. Shogun. I think I was pushing twelve. She thought it would give me nightmares, what with all the hara-kiri and boiling innocent citizens in oil. She was probably right. I bet The Hunger Games has sparked its share of bad dreams in young brains. Since I don't have a ten-year-old, I'm not faced with having to decide whether to allow him to read the books at a tender age or not. The books are so popular that many kids who don't read them will still know the story.

I'm more troubled that a significant minority of Amazon's customer reviewers find Catniss "unlikeable." In the reviews I read (dozens among thousands), readers who penned negative reviews frequently cited Catniss' tough personality as a turn off.

Excuse me? She lives in a totalitarian society where, on a good day, she must commit a capital crime in order to have enough to eat. She has other mouths to feed. Her government forces her to fight other kids to the death. Is she supposed to be giggling about boys and braiding her friends' hair at the same time? Worrying about others when it's all she can do to try to keep herself and her immediate family safe? Please.

Why is a strong, independent female who refuses to go down without a fight deemed unlikeable?

Now there's a great essay question for high school kids to write about.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Things that Go Bump in the Night (and Afternoon)

The trouble started, ironically enough, around the Ides of March. I put the Grape down for his nap and jumped in the shower. I emerged, warm and clean, and was wrapping myself in a towel when I heard a door open.

First thought: There is an INTRUDER in the house.

Second thought: That useless dog isn't barking.

Third, fourth and fifth thoughts (concurrent): I am naked. My phone is downstairs on the kitchen counter. [Expletive, expletive, expletive!!!]

The bathroom door swung open. There stood the Grape, in his pajamas, clutching the big stuffed dog from his bed. "Hi, Mamma," he said, in the most casual conversational tone I've ever heard him deploy.

My heart rate shot back down to normal. I scooped up the Grape, returned him to the crib, folded my arms across my chest and said, "Show me."

The little monkey hoisted himself out, if not gracefully, then efficiently, and landed on the floor in a heap. I noted with a mix of amusement and pride that he padded the floor with stuffed animals before launching himself.

Sixth and seventh thoughts: This nap was only twenty minutes old. My life as I know it is over.

I decided to haul out the travel crib. I figured he couldn't climb out because he wouldn't be able to get any purchase on the mesh sides.

Wrong. Minutes later, the Grape face planted onto the hardwood. No good.

Still in my towel, I called R. and shared the sad news: we need a big kid bed and we need it now. The store down the corner obliged. Crib was dispatched. Toddler bed was assembled and presented as a Major Big Deal. The Grape glowed with pleasure. He climbed in happily that first night.

And stayed put for almost two minutes. I wrung my hands and tried not to hyperventilate. I pictured the Grape up all night, emptying closets, playing with toys long forgotten, raiding the cookie jar.

R. told him big boys stay in their beds. I rolled my eyes.

But it worked. He slept like a champ that night. And has more or less been okay with getting in bed and staying there at night.

Naps are another story. The Grape's position is straightforward: bye bye, crib means bye bye, nap. He punctuates this opinion with his favorite new saying, "I don't have to," and stays put in bed from approximately 2 p.m. until 2:01 p.m.

My position is incompatible with his: No nap means that by dinner time (when it's too early to go to bed for the night and too late to cat nap), the Grape is a barely functional, blubbering, sobbing, fragile mess who walks into walls, trips over his shadow and refuses to eat. He screams, simultaneously, that he wants to stay home and he wants to go to the park. Lots of fun, right?

Meanwhile, I'm frazzled and fried. If he doesn't nap, I get nothing done.

Case in point: I responded to an email from my publicist yesterday afternoon while the Grape was boycotting his nap. I told her, basically: I red that book, and also I liked the read cover.

Which was sub ideal. At best.

Other parents have advised that we shut the Grape in his room for afternoon quiet time. "He'll get bored and go to sleep."

As if.

I've tried bribes. (If you take a nap, I'll buy you an ice cream.) I've tried threats. (If you don't stay in bed and take a nap, I'm taking away your cars.) I've tried looking him in the eye and repeating R.'s stern directive that big boys stay in bed.

The Grape mocks me. He literally laughs in my face. Something in his biological wiring tells him I'm not a serious threat to his newfound liberty.

Short of bringing back the crib, kitted out with one of those crib tent things that transforms it into something resembling a dog crate, I'm not sure what to do but wait him out. Pray he becomes exhausted enough to nap at least once or twice a week.

Or I could beg R. to stop in at home every afternoon around 2 so he can repeat whatever Jedi mind trick he did that first crib-free night.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Outsourcing the God Stuff?

An acquaintance quipped to me today that she "seriously considered" enrolling her kids in a parochial school "because I can't motivate to teach them that stuff and I want them to have the information about tough religious questions."

I asked what tough religious questions might plague her kindergartener's mind.

"I'm especially afraid of when my kid asks what happens when we die."

Had this exchange occurred over Skype or email, my forehead might have hit the keyboard.

Seriously? I wanted to say. This is your strategy? Send Junior to school, where he will learn that dead relations go to heaven to hang out with Jesus, who is so central and important to mom and dad's world view that neither can be bothered to darken the doorway of a church themselves? Not even once a month? Or twice a year? Am I getting this right?

Because I don't know her well, I blinked in confusion and remarked that I hoped the Grape would win a good place in the public school kindergarten lottery, thereby side-stepping the whole private school conversation.

She pressed her case. "Don't you need a good story for when someone dies?"

Is it weird to think honesty is a good policy? Kids are savvier than many adults realize. I don't see anything wrong with saying I'm not sure where dead folks go, but they're gone from this life and many people believe they go to a better place.

If there is indeed a heaven, I'm willing to wager it's a place or state of being we mere mortals cannot even contemplate. With the cosmos so vast and unknowable, there's a case that it's arrogant to even try to get into the head of whatever higher powers may be.

I see no need to fill the Grape's head with trite pictures of dead relatives with wings, strumming harps on fluffy clouds.

When I was six, my grandfather and my dog died within three days of each other, both unexpectedly. (Dog landed under the wheels of a car; grandfather bled out in the OR when his aorta ruptured.)

What I recall, vividly, about that week: I was far more upset about losing the puppy. My grandfather was a great guy, but I knew the dog "better," in the immediate, child-centric sense that the dog figured in my daily life and the grandfather, who lived an ocean away, did not.

I was smart enough to realize these feelings weren't p.c., so I kept them to myself as well as a first grader could.

I also remember that my grandfather had no use for the church (his faith lapsed permanently on the front lines of Finland's miserable Winter War). He never attended, not even on a C&E basis. My grandmother, his widow and a true believer in Christ and his church, was in a nearly hysterical state over the fate of her late husband's immortal soul.

The pastor assured her that the dearly departed would go to heaven.

Back home some months later, I asked our pastor about our deceased dog's prospects for eternal life after death.

Answer: Dogs do not go to heaven. Ever.

My response: How do you know?

I don't remember his exact answer, but I recall finding it unsatisfactory. I also informed him that I had no intention of going to any class of animal-free heaven. Ever.

That was the moment my nascent faith suffered its first truly seismic crack, though it took another few years for me to reject the church fully.

Truth be told, I still consider myself a "cultural Christian." By which I mean, I enjoy the traditions, particularly around the holidays, and I believe that the Lutheran Church I left stands for some exceptional values, chief among them: take care of those less fortunate, those who are sick, alone, ailing or outcast. You know, all that socialist stuff the Religious Right finds so repugnant.

I respect that faith provides great comfort and strength to millions of people. For better or worse, I'm not one of them. So I can't see myself paying a third party to evangelize to my kid.

Call me type A, but some degree of message control is important to me. I remember when my grandmother, true believer, died decades after her husband. An old family friend came up to my sister and me at her funeral and told us not be sad. I nodded, expecting the usual "be thankful it was peaceful and she had a good life" speech.

I had to pick my jaw off the floor when she told me she was rejoicing that my grandmother had left this world to be in heaven, and that she (the friend) prayed to join her and Jesus soon. I remember being furious with the friend, and I haven't forgiven her ill-timed audacity to this day.

I'd prefer, in the event the Grape suffers a big loss, that people tell him it's okay to be sad, to grieve. Because whatever happens to the deceased, one thing in this whole scenario is certain: To a small child, it's all about him or her, not about the larger theological questions. That's why small kids ask, "Will I die?" or "Will Mommy die?" before thinking to ask "Will terminally ill, 97-year-old great aunt Sally, who lives six hours away and we see once a year, die?"

I'm also cognizant of the central role religion plays in our culture, and I would like the Grape to take some kind of classes in world religions and Bible-as-literature, as part of a well-rounded education. But I don't need to pay tuition so that someone else can assure him that Jesus loves him, or to teach him to recite a prayer from rote, just in case he dies in his sleep.

Which brings me back to kids' thoughts on death, the unpleasant subject my neighbor lady would like to outsource.

The other big thing I remember about childhood and death is that the subject wasn't handled in quite the same sanitized way it's often approached today. Maybe I was a bit of a hayseed. We had working farms on our road when I was little. I knew the meatballs on my dinner plate were ex-cows. I knew girl goats went to pasture and boy goats to slaughter. I knew that people and animals could just die of being old, or sick, or in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it wasn't always "fair."

I also remember standing next to my brother (three years my junior) and watching the caskets (human and animal) disappearing into the ground.

We understood, without being told, that dead means you're gone.

But we also understood gone doesn't equal forgotten.

And for me, if the Grape gets that message about death, I will feel like I've done my job.